The showdown between Olympic teammates LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony quickly turned into more of a smackdown - and a statement.
James said Cleveland's 105-88 runaway win over the Denver Nuggets on Friday night was a shout-out to the rest of the NBA and all those doubters out there who contend the Cavaliers' record - now 22-4 - was more a testament of their soft schedule than their championship caliber.
"I think this is a statement game. We wanted to make that statement," James said. "We knew we were coming into a hostile environment, a team that had been playing just as hot as us, just as hot as Boston and just as hot as the Lakers. We made a statement and came in here and took care of business."
In sweeping 'Melo's Nuggets for the first time in his career, James had 33 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He was 13-of-20 from the floor.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas celebrated his return to the Cavaliers lineup for the first time since Dec. 10 by making nine of 14 shots for 23 points. He had missed three games with a sprained left ankle. Delonte West added 22 points.
Denver lost for just the sixth time in 22 games - and for the first time back-to-back - with Chauncey Billups, who led Denver with 16 points.
Anthony scored 13 - on 5-of-14 shooting - before fouling out with five minutes left, a trigger for the fans to finally give up on thoughts of a comeback and head for the Pepsi Center exits.
"We see each other so much in the offseason that we don't want to hear the trash talking," James said. "So we play hard against each other. If you were just watching the game you would never think we were friends. I got him this time. I got him this year.
The Cavs' starters made 20 of their first 24 shots and built a 22-point first-half lead.
The Nuggets chipped away and trailed by half that amount at halftime and even trimmed their deficit to single digits when Dahntay Jones' basket made it 66-57 early in the third quarter, but Denver wouldn't score another point for five minutes and the Cavaliers, who had just five second-half turnovers, put this one away early.
"To hold this team in this building to 88 points on 43 percent shooting is phenomenal," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "I have to give my entire team credit for doing that. Especially that third quarter. I think the last 10 1/2 minutes they scored eight points. That's unheard of."
Everything seemed to go Cleveland's way. When James missed a free throw in the fourth quarter, he got the rebound without moving his feet and calmly sank the basket from the exact same spot.
Cleveland dominated from the start, building a 37-21 cushion after one unbelievable quarter in which the Cavaliers made 15 of 20 shots, including an amazing left-handed runner by James on a full sprint as he was getting hammered by Kenyon Martin with one-tenth of a second left in the quarter.
West's jumper made it a 22-point game before the Nuggets trimmed the deficit to 64-53 at the half, a run that was as much about the Cavs just cooling off as it was about any adjustments by Denver.
James, the first pick in the 2003 draft, lost eight of his first 10 games against the Nuggets, who chose Anthony with the third pick that year. Both superstars are now surrounded with the best supporting casts they've ever had. Before this year, the Nuggets always had more talent around 'Melo than James had around him.
And this time, the Cavs came in with several chips on their shoulders.
"It was pretty obvious that they were very angry about winning this game and we didn't match the intensity for most of the game," Nuggets coach George Karl said.
Nene had his second straight tough game against an elite NBA center. He had just one point, three boards, four fouls and two turnovers while being constantly hounded by James.
"There's no question that we need more out of Nene, and we need more out of everybody," Karl said. "But I don't think the game is bad enough to get depressed. I mean, we're in a good place. You always stub your toe. You always fall down. It's early in the season. Nothing is written in stone."
Notes: Broncos WR Brandon Marshall presented the game ball, then shot an air ball from three-point range before burying his face in his hands. For the record, it was wide right. ... The Cavaliers beat Denver 110-99 on Nov. 13 in Cleveland. ... The Cavs swept Denver for just the fourth time since 1976 and first time since 1999-00.
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